Meet the Southsea writer's story on facing homophobia, sexism and MS

Homophobia, sexism, Multiple Sclerosis – there’s nothing that can stop writer and poet, Cecily, from sharing her story with the world.

By Elsa Waterfield
Tuesday, 10th May 2022, 10:32 am
Updated Tuesday, 10th May 2022, 10:33 am

Writer and performance poet, 67-year-old Cecily Holland, moved to Southsea a year and a half ago after falling in love with Portsmouth after many visits to friends over the years.

‘I absolutely adore it, every time I came to visit there was always something going on, so much creativity,’ she says.

Cecily is now preparing to showcase her book, All Who Sail In Us, at multiple upcoming events such as Portsmouth Pride in June and Literacy Live, an event held in conjunction with Victorious Festival in August this year.

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Writer and poet Cecily Holland pictured at her home in Southsea Picture: Chris Moorhouse (jpns 040522-37)

To commemorate 50 years of UK Pride, Cecily has written a poem dedicated to her own experiences as a member of the LGBTQ+ community which she plans to perform at

‘It's going to be a bit of an anthem, almost a musical. I’m really excited about that one,’ she says.

While Cecily now delights in living and working freely here in Portsmouth, growing up in Manchester in the mid 70s as a working-class lesbian when ‘queer bashing’ was rife, it wasn’t always so easy.

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‘Where I was from on a council estate in Manchester, you couldn’t even say the word gay, let alone be gay,’ she said

‘You’d get the s*** beaten out of you to be frank,’ adds Cecily.

Cecily soon moved away to Lancaster at 20 during the early days of gay liberation, to escape the prejudice of her home town and lived openly as a gay woman.

‘All Who Sail In Us is part of my life story, from the days when you couldnt be gay,’ she says.

‘Lancaster was one of the only places other than London in the country to be a part of the beginning.’

All Who Sail In Us is set in the spring of 1978 and follows Cecily as she arrives to live in Stepney in the East End of London two years later, after hitchhiking down from Lancaster with her sister

‘I went to live on a street on a squat with ten houses, five were squatted by lesbian households and the other five were Asian families,’ says Cecily.

‘We sort of looked out for each other, we thought we had it bad but they had it really bad,’ she adds.

Along with her 18-year-old sister, also a lesbian and the 'only gays' in a huge Irish Catholic family of 11 girls and two boys, readers are led through the toils of life in London as ‘out’ lesbians.

‘I had a very quick eye to spot trouble coming. You just had to watch your back the whole time,’ says Cecily.

‘My book goes through every inch of it, we lived a very fast life, it’s funny and it’s quite moving as well.’

Despite facing constant threats as well as dodging IRA bombs, homophobes’ bullets, police brutality, racists, fascists and being stranded in the Brixton riots - the two sisters manage to have the time of their lives.

‘It was pretty heavy, but we still had an amazing time, we lived openly as lesbians which took guts to do to be honest,’ says Cecily.

‘But we just risked it.’

Cecily recalls one particular incident when her sister and girlfriend were linking arms one afternoon as they returned home from their local pub and had to defend themselves against two men who followed them home.

‘We'd got some cans of beer to take back and two bottles in a carrier bag,’ she says.

‘All of a sudden we could hear all this effin and blinding, ‘you queers’ and this and that, I got this real tingling down my spine and I knew they were going to jump us.’

Having grown up on a ‘pretty tough’ council estate in Manchester, Cecily developed a sixth sense for trouble and as a strong, tall and fiery northerner, she maintains that no one ‘ever’ got the better of her.

‘I bent over, I put my hand in the bag to grab one of the bottles, I swung back around and I put it right up to his chin,’ she says.

‘He flew back to his friend, saying ‘no, no, no we don’t want any trouble,’ Cecily laughs.

This tale is one of many anecdotes shared in All Who Sail In Us, currently Cecily’s only published work in February 2019, and one she felt she had to share with the world.

‘The only places for women to go to at that time in London were in the attics or in the cellars,’ she says.

Cecily emphasises that the odds were stacked against lesbians during that time as women coming out not only had to face homophobia, but also sexism.

‘People really needed to know my story, what it was like, it’s never been documented for lesbians of that time,’ says Cecily.

‘It’s because we’re women, the first lesbian kiss on TV was in the nineties, it’s absolutely mental.’

In 2009, when Cecily thought she had already faced her fair share of adversity in life, she was diagnosed with a progressive form of MS.

‘I had my own women’s decorating business, it started getting more painful to get up ladders, I just assumed I was getting older,’ says Cecily.

‘I didn't take much notice of it, I went sick thinking I'd be all right in a couple months, and I wasn’t.’

Against the odds, she has continued to write and start to perform her poetry - appearing onstage at the Wedgewood Rooms, Aspex Gallery and other creative Open Mic events around Portsmouth.

‘MS can be quite hard to diagnose. One of my sisters had it too, it sort of crept into my subconscious.’

‘It took me about two years to get over the shock of it, I’ve written a poem about that as well,’ she adds.

Cecily ‘couldn’t help’ but move to Southsea to be part of the many creative communities in Portsmouth, including the LGBTQ+ community, and she recalls one evening recently when she wandered down to South Parade Pier.

‘These five young women came past, four of them just held hands with each other, two couples, I sat there and I was totally blown away by it,’ she says.

‘It’s a normal thing now. Iin my day you would never in a million years have seen that, it’s amazing.’

Cecily looks forward to her creative endeavour being accepted, just as she has been, into the Portsmouth fold and hopes her book can encourage others to tell their own stories of life during this tough time.

She says about her book: ‘It’s unique, it’s one on its own.’

‘Because I’m down to earth and working-class, not many people like me get to write books, which is a big thing for me.’

‘I’ve had a very colourful and full life. The way I see it is I’m lucky to be alive.’